On September 13, 1859, a group of about seventy three men arrived during the early dawn hours on the shores of Lake Merced to witness a duel between David Smith Terry and David Colbreth Broderick. The newspapers had given the impending duel so much attention that the authorities had stopped the men from dueling just a day before. Today, however, the authorities were nowhere to be seen. The two men stood facing each other solemnly. Terry was a lumbering figure, standing at six feet and three inches and weighing two hundred and twenty pounds. At the count of “one,” Broderick fired his hair-trigger pistol at Terry. He had fired too hastily and his bullet landed in the ground directly in front of Terry’s feet. Before the count reached “two” Terry also fired. There was a “slight show of dust on [Broderick’s] right lapel.” Broderick stumbled and fell to the ground, with a bullet lodged in his lung. The surgeon attended to the wound and Broderick was taken to a nearby friend’s home. He died three days later.
The significance of this duel does not originate simply from the fact that David Terry was the sitting Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of California or that David Broderick was a United States Senator. In its analysis of the duel, the Sun reported that “[a]mong the many duels in California none excited so much interest, and none had such an influence on politics and society as the fatal meeting between David C. Broderick and David S. Terry.” In order to understand this bold statement and the true impact of this seemingly isolated event on California’s history, it is necessary for one to understand the underlying historical context and underpinnings under which this duel occurred. Section II of this article will describe the setting and the atmosphere of early California. It will briefly discuss the issue of slavery in California and the effect it had on California’s entry into the Union. It will then discuss Southern traditions in regards to honor, pride, and dueling. Section III will tell the stories of the duelists David S. Terry and David C. Broderick and their roles in California politics. It will also discuss a quintessential character in the story, William Gwin. Section IV will explain Broderick’s struggle for power, and the bitter political campaign of 1859 which pitted Senator Broderick against Senator Gwin and Section V will conclude the article. An analysis of these areas will reveal that David Broderick’s death weakened the pro-Southern Democratic stranglehold on California politics, turned public opinion against the Democratic Party, eroded the credibility of the pro-Southern sentiments in the state, and ultimately ensured that California remained within the Union at the outbreak of the Civil War.